“Turn! Turn! Turn,” the Byrds sang. “For everything there is a season,” quoth Solomon. Perhaps it’s the way we acquire knowledge, but lately many fields in academia are experiencing “turns.” The idea seems to be that if fields continue to turn, they will eventually all converge on the same intersection and true knowledge will be obtained. The post-modern turn, however, suggests that there is no objective knowledge. It kind of makes me dizzy, all this turning. Although I find the use of this particular noun in such phrases a touch unsophisticated, it’s here to stay. At least until academia takes another turn. Public intellectuals, after all, have to have something to say. And academics are capital imitators.
Ironically, within the same week I read of the “religious turn” in the humanities and a different turn within religious studies. This “religious turn” is not to suggest the humanities have found that old time religion, but rather that many disciplines are now realizing that religion has played, and continues to play, a very important role in human affairs. Fields that have traditionally avoided religious topics are now “turning” that way. At the same time that others are turning toward religion, religious studies is taking a “material turn.” The public intellectuals smile at the maze they’ve created as the paychecks roll in. The “material turn,” if I understand correctly, is that the ideas of religion can be explained via the real world needs that various religions meet. There’s no need for any divine character or intervention. There is no sacred or profane, but rather kinetic movement of shifting patterns that at any one time or place might be denominated as religions.
I’m all for progress, but I think I might’ve missed the turn. To my old school way of thinking, sacred and profane, Eliadian though they may be, still have great explanatory value. I don’t know if there’s objective knowledge to be found by fallen mortals such as we. The material world we experience through our senses is mediated by those very senses so our understanding is, of necessity, limited. We can’t touch naked reality even if we try. Our quest, in circumstances such as these, would seem to be digging deeper until we come to that which resists any tunneling. It’s like coming to the end of the physical universe and wondering what’s beyond this natural limit. Then, I suppose, you’d have to turn. Until such time as that, however, all of this present day turning is for the Byrds.
Religion and science. Cats and dogs. We’re used to hearing these two just can’t get along. High profile scientists sometimes denounce religion tout court, and some religionists doubt science’s claims implicitly. Human beings, truth be told, are both rational and spiritual. Often not both at the same time. Edward O. Wilson is a biologist who believes, as expressed in The Origins of Creativity, that the humanities and science are both essential and that the hope of humanity is that both will be embraced. It’s a fine vision—guided by science but aware of the values brought by art, we would live in a world utilizing the best our species has to offer. So, why don’t we?
Apart from the obvious fact that humans are also irrational and non-religious—what else could justify wars?—Wilson has a rather odd answer. The belief in creation myths, he avers, is what leads to much unrest in the world. Not religion per se, but creation myths. Muslims, Christians, and Jews share basically the same creation myth. Their divergences come in other forms. Many don’t much care about the creation myth of their tradition so much as about issues that are based on outdated understandings of humanity. Wilson doesn’t condemn religion per se, which is refreshing, but he does seem to circumscribe it far within its natural boundaries. I suspect his real target is creationism.
In this very insightful little book, another curiosity lurks. Wilson, although he supports the humanities and advocates for them, stresses that they are problematic by being limited to humans. I think I get this, partly. There is much to the world beyond human ability to perceive. Our senses of smell and taste are especially limited. We can’t see as well as an eagle or hear as well as a bat. Incorporating their experiences into the humanities would be way cool, but we would never experience them ourselves. This is terribly speciesist of me to say, I know, but humanities are all about what it means to be, well, human. We are limited. Rationality is limited. We don’t have all the facts, and if history is anything to go by, we never will. Accepting limitations is very human. So is attempting to exceed them. The humanities at their best embrace both. Wilson acknowledges that the study of religion is important, and that our universities let us down by not giving the humanities their due. Science can take us only so far. Creativity is about the most godlike trait we possess.
Not so long ago, when I was still a professor, a colleague told me he had no interest in science. We studied religion, he reasoned, and science had little to add. I was in the midst of a research project at the time. That project was exploring how what we know of evolution (or knew at the time) might inform our understanding of ancient texts. Of course, I was working in relative isolation, noting in my cover letters to universities that my research would benefit from an institution with a cooperative and collegial atmosphere between the sciences and humanities. If you’ve read this blog before, you know how that ended. No cooperative schools ever thought such research was worth sponsoring. After all, there are younger, less expensive specialists out there examining ancient religions in microscopic detail. The rest of the world, of course, wonders why.
This divide, as so eloquently delineated by Marcelo Gleiser in a piece on NPR, is starting to grow narrower. Science is taking us, in many fields, very close to the humanities. And we can’t make sense of some of it without admitting our human limitations. This is what I so admire about Gleiser’s writing—he is a scientist who understands that arrogance has no place in intellectual inquiry. Biology, as I long ago expected, holds one of the keys of this dilemma. Our brains evolved for a specific purpose—to help us survive in a predatory world. They did not evolve into processing systems to comprehend, as one sage put it, life, the universe, and everything. No one brain can hold all that knowledge. Like it or not, that brain in human. And humans need humanities.
Some scholars among the humanities like to claim that science has reached too far. The problem is, any scholar who is a true scholar is also a scientist. We use scientific methods to understand our admittedly speculative, or at least subjective, subject matter. Science isn’t the enemy here. Arrogance is. As Gleiser has stated in other venues, we have to approach the world with humility. We know so very little. Part of that world is that beyond human reach, and part of that world is what humans have done. They’re both part of the larger picture. But humans live on a small planet that we now know is only one of many, many more throughout the visible universe. And we know the visible universe is only part of the story. But we can’t be honest if we forget that the minds trying to understand all this are, no matter how evolved, only human.
Once upon a time, I heard about a book called The Uses of Enchantment. During my doctoral studies it was recommended to me, and I put it on my to read list. That list is quite long, and I don’t follow it in any kind of order. Like life, it is chaotic and ever changing. Now, some decades later, I have finally read Bruno Bettelheim’s classic, and I wish I’d read it when I first knew of it. Originally published in the 1970s, The Uses of Enchantment was one of the few serious books that suggests fairy tales are important. Bettelheim was an unapologetic Freudian and in reading his book I found the origin of many of the observations I’d read about fairy tales through the years (what does Red Riding Hood’s wolf represent?) owed their origins to this tome. The book is important even for non-Freudians because it takes great care with a subject that clearly deserves it—our imaginary tales are more than simple entertainment.
Fairy tales are part of a long continuum in human thought. Bettelheim shows that they are very closely related to myths, although mythology is clearly something different. Similar, but not equal. Even more intriguing is the fact that fairy tales are closely tied to religion. Bettelheim notes that several biblical stories could almost be classified as fairy tales. The intellectual life of the child, he notes, for much of history depended on religious stories and fairy tales. The very unrealistic nature of both are intended to speak to children in a way that facts can’t. Indeed, the hardened rationalists sometimes seem to lose sight of the fact that we all need fantasy to keep us going from time to time. Bettelheim suggests that biblical stories help children to cope with things on a symbolic level that creates a sense of security.
Already in the 70s, however, many were suggesting that we, as a species, had outgrown our use for fairy tales. Indeed, it is not difficult to find many academics in the humanities who hear the same refrain—we don’t need this fluff. Science, numbers, technology—these are the keys to the future! But what future, I wonder? What kind of world would we have to face without literature, movies, and music? We need our myths still. Despite Disney’s take on them, we need our fairy tales as well. A world without imagination may be efficient, but it is no livable world at all. Bettelheim’s personal demons sometimes cast a shadow over his work. He was a concentration camp survivor, however, and early trauma has a way of staying with a person throughout life. Those with fairy tales to fall back onto may be those best set to survive in the deep, dark woods.
In last week’s Time magazine Joel Stein’s “The Awesome Column,” a humorous endnote for somber weekly news, spoke to me. Although Stein writes as light relief, when he addresses humanities education I have to sit up and take notice. Like being in class all over again. Although Stein is trying to be funny, I find the decline in the humanities to be no laughing matter. I don’t think Stein does either. As an uncle once said to a relative recovering from cancer—you might as well laugh about being bald, what else can you do? The humanities are so called because they are what makes us human. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Stein addresses this in the issue following that which commemorates Robin Williams. As I’ve written before, I don’t consider myself a Williams fan, but I can’t help but associate him with what I consider his best movie, Dead Poets Society. The humanities are what we live for.
I’m a little too nearsighted to claim to see the future clearly, but Stein makes the accurate assertion that our great ideas have tended to come from our humanities dreamers. Presidents and Popes, he notes, have not been drawn from the sciences, but from the arts. Herein, I suspect, many would suggest lies the problem. We are a schizophrenic society (with apologies to those who believe schizophrenic is a slur word). Who wants a warm puppy on your lap when you can have a warm laptop instead? Indeed, you can carry your computer under your arm, in your pocket or purse, or even around your wrist. Instant access to the internet and every other wired person all the time. Isn’t that what we really wanted? But then we come out of the movie theater complaining that the show was poorly written, if technologically flawless. We have just walked out of John Keating’s classroom, methinks.
Is this worth more than just money?
“We live in a time,” Stein opines, “when smart people want to discuss only politics, technology, and economics.” Truth be told, the deeper you look behind any of these topics the more boring they become. Politics? Everyone wants to rule everyone else, what’s new there? Technology? Electrons dance better in some substrates, and if we can only get this confusing formula right… Economics? I want what you have, so why don’t we trade? How banal! Anyone who’s ever lost him or herself in a novel, a movie, or a song (even, dare I say, a prayer?) knows that transcendence trumps technology every time. As the weather begins its long decline into a bleak and icy winter, I’ll be sitting here with my laptop on my lap, but I can guarantee that this is one place where I can fully agree with the departed Charles Schultz. Happiness would actually be a warm puppy.
Seems a lot of people are deluded these days. I know I am. Still, every great once in a while I read a book that helps me cope with the morass of everyday life in a way so profound that I feel elated. At least until I get to work. One of those books I cannot commend highly enough. Curtis White’s The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers is epiphanic. Not your typical (generally faith-based) objection to the New Atheist phenomenon, White asks more fundamental, and indeed, logical, questions. And he’s incredibly fun to read. Starting with the conundrum that often goes unspoken, White demonstrates that even the scientists among the New Atheists ascribe to immaterial value judgments without thinking through the implications. Having jettisoned religion, philosophy—the whole of the humanities, in general, as pointless, non-empirical window-dressing, even the greatest lights still claim their tenets. As White illustrates, stars cannot be beautiful without a concept of beauty. Beauty cannot be quantified, and is therefore beyond the empirical method. One could say it’s in the eye of the beholder, but science is uncomfortable with metaphors as well.
Materialism, often in league with politics and power-mongers, fails to account for much of human experience. The real danger, as White demonstrates, is when society simply accepts it because it comes from a white lab-coat. White, along with most of non-materialists, is not anti-science. Science clearly describes, in a pretty close approximation, the physical world we know. At least in the New Atheist camp, however, it doesn’t stop there. The take-no-survivors attitude causes problems because it is hoisted on its own petard of logic. The mind that is attempting to puzzle out science is immaterial. Mind does not equal brain. The cause and the result are easily confused. Flush with neuroscience’s success of describing the brain, we assume that science can also explain things as inexplicable as the nature of light, quantum mechanics, black holes, or the Tea Party.
White is not shy of talking about the elephant in the room. Consciousness is not a material phenomenon. If you are reading this, you know what I’m talking about. We are self-aware creatures. So seem to be some other primates, cetaceans, and corvids. If our minds could be quantified a lot of psychologist’s couches would be empty. Chemicals may affect the working of our brains and influence the performance of our minds, but when they wear off, it is still yourself staring back from the mirror the morning after. Those of us who spend our lives pursuing the humanities generally don’t try to take over science. It is very good at what it does. The world as we experience it—even the use of the word “experience” itself—is, however, more than physical. Even the New Atheists dream, and hope, and love. No matter what they may say, there is an inherent beauty in that.
Posted in Books, Consciousness, Posts, Science
Tagged Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers, Consciousness, Curtis White, human brain, humanities, materialism, New Atheists, science, The Science Delusion